Scotland is finalizing the terms of a contest in wave and tidal energy that takes inspiration from the prize that prompted Lindbergh's transatlantic flight in 1927 and successors like the X Prizes and the Virgin Earth Challenge. The aim of the contest is to make ocean energy more than just a technical curiosity and, not so incidentally, give the country's inventors and entrepreneurs a boost in an area where they have some obvious advantages--suitable geography, friendly government policies, and a head start in engineering.
Dubbed the Saltire Prize, after the cross that is the central element in Scotland's flag, the prize of £10 million (about US $16 million) will be awarded in five years. Contestants will need the time to devise and demonstrate their technology because, by all accounts, Saltire is a very challenging challenge, so much so that only a Scottish company may be able to win it.
"To win the prize," the rules say, "entrants must demonstrate, in Scottish waters, a commercially viable wave or tidal energy technology with a minimum output of 100 gigawatt-hours over a two-year period--using only the power of the sea. The winner will be judged to be the best overall technology after consideration of cost, environmental sustainability, and safety."
Although the final guidelines won't be released until the third quarter of this year, by early July the contest had already attracted the interest of more than 100 potential competitors, says Claire M. Smith, Saltire's spokesperson. About 30 percent are from the United States, she reports, and "U.S. companies have just as much chance as anyone else."
But Roger Bedard, the lead ocean-energy researcher at the Electric Power Research Institute, in Palo Alto, Calif., is skeptical. This is a prize "that won't be won by the United States," he says. Bedard points out that complex U.S. regulations do not favor getting new technology into the water fast, and that technical challenges are often underestimated. A tidal project in New York City's East River is a case in point. In the waterway that connects Long Island Sound with the city's harbor, the first turbine blades installed promptly broke in the powerful current.
What is more, Bedard continues, a plant producing 100 GWh for two years is not small by ocean energy standards. Taking into account the fact that an average plant would be generating electricity at capacity only about a third of the time, the prize calls for a tidal facility of roughly 18 to 20 megawatts. But the largest plant operating at present, in Agußadoura, Portugal, is just 2.25 MW. On reflection, says Bedard, "I bet nobody is going to do it."
Some of those that come closest will almost certainly be Scottish. The Portuguese plant was built by Pelamis Wave Power, in Edinburgh, a world leader. Meanwhile, ScottishPower Renewables is getting set this month to ask the Scottish and Irish assemblies for approval to develop three 1- to 20-MW sites, with turbines developed in Norway, according to Scotland's Herald. The European Marine Energy Center is located amid the country's Orkney Islands.
The Scots are shooting to get 31 percent of their energy from renewables by 2011 and 50 percent by 2050, which are among the world's most ambitious targets. Their country has the potential to generate 25 percent of Europe's tidal energy and 10 percent of its wave energy, says Saltire's Smith. "Scotland is a small country that likes to punch above its weight," she told a United Nations conference in June.